Witness sues former judge

Published 1:09 am Thursday, June 25, 2009

One of the key witnesses in last year’s case against former Covington County Probate Judge Sherrie Phillips has filed a civil lawsuit against the former judge and others involved in the case that led to Phillips’ conviction on charges of criminal theft and ethics charges.

The criminal case involved the estate of a deceased man, Cary Douglas Piper of Castleberry in Conecuh County, who appeared at the time of his death to have no heirs and no will. Six first-cousin legal heirs were later identified.

Mary Drew Sullivan of Castleberry, a friend of Piper’s, retained Evergreen attorney John Brock to help her settle Piper’s estate. In the civil lawsuit filed earlier this month in Conecuh County, Sullivan claims that Brock and Phillips “insisted that the petition to administer (Piper’s) estate be filed in Covington County and that estate assets be moved there to create jurisdiction,” despite the fact that Piper lived in Conecuh County. She is demanding a jury trial in the case, in which she alleges legal malpractice, conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, outrage, negligence, wantonness, fraud and suppression.

In her complaint — which also lists Birmingham accountant John C. Boohaker, who has offices in Brewton — Sullivan claims that “at all times during the administration of the estate, she followed the instructions and legal, accounting and judicial advice and representations of the defendants and never questioned their advice and directives.”

Sullivan testified in Phillips’ criminal trial and claimed in the civil trial that she moved a bank account of Piper’s to Regions Bank in Covington County at Phillips’ and Brock’s instruction. Brock then petitioned the probate court of Covington County to have Sullivan named personal representative of the Piper estate.

In Sullivan’s complaint, she states that Phillips, in concert with Brock in December 2007 or January 2008, awarded attorney’s fees to Brock and personal representative fees to Sullivan in the amount of $450,000 each.

“Phillips then instructed Sullivan to write a check payable to Phillips, individually, in the amount of $1,800,000, which she did, based on Brock’s advice and Phillips’ instructions,” the complaint reads.

Not long after the check to Phillips was written and delivered to her, Brock “suggested to Sullivan that it would be a good idea to pay him cash in the amount of $7,000 to pay for one half of a gift to Phillips,” and Sullivan did so, the complaint says.

In May 2008, the Alabama Attorney General’s office contacted Sullivan about the Piper case and “for the first time Sullivan realized that there were serious and significant problems with the advice given to her by Brock and Phillips and the manner in which the Piper Estate had been handled,” the complaint reads.

Phillips was later found guilty in the criminal case that followed. She has appealed that conviction and is free on an appeals bond.

In a separate legal case, then acting Probate Judge Lee Enzor ordered Sullivan and Brock to repay the fees they received from the estate after six first cousins and legal heirs to the estate were identified. The case was moved to the probate court of Conecuh County.

In the lawsuit filed last week, Sullivan says she has had to mortgage her home, borrow money from her parents and “deplete her assets in order to pay monies back to the estate, with interest, and to pay the IRS penalties and interest for late filing of the estate tax return, to pay monies unnecessarily to the defendants, to be investigated by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and the Attorney Generals Office, to be subjected to public ridicule and scorn, to suffer personal embarrassment and severe emotional distress, all as a result of the conduct, misconduct and malpractice of the defendants.”

Phillips, Brock and Boohaker have 30 days from the date of the filing to answer the suit.